In the end, the big man gets the last laugh. Come to think of it, he also gets the first laugh, but for different reasons: you sense that Verdi steadily grew to love Falstaff in the course of writing the opera, as he turns from a coarse buffoon into a maligned old man and, eventually, into the spirit of laughter itself. Last night at Covent Garden, Italian Baritone Ambrogio Maestri was the perfect embodiment of the role: Maestri makes you feel that he loves Falstaff every bit as much as Verdi; a big man singing a larger than life role. Maestri’s voice is warm and rich, with enough flexibility to handle Verdi’s many tricks in which he is required to imitate other characters (his imitation of Alice Ford is a splendid falsetto).

Robert Carsen’s new production is set in the 1950s. Much has been made of the numerical transposition of the 1950s with Shakespeare’s 1590s, the similar growth in the two periods of a class of impoverished nobility, and the Italian love of upper class British fashion. I’m not sure how much these nuances really matter, but Carsen and designer Paul Steinberg’s setting works marvellously. Shakespeare’s Garter Inn translates into a genteel but rather fusty hotel, with elderly guests continually leaving in disgust at the antics of Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and the other protagonists; Alice Ford’s home is a miracle of kitsch with its pastel yellow and peach kitchen units.

The scene in which Ford and his acolytes rip the whole place apart is side-splitting, just one example of many where Carsen gets excellent movement around the stage and generally strong acting performances. In much of the opera, the cast splits up by gender: the quartet of women (Alice, Meg Page, Quickly and Nannetta) scheme and gossip together to hilarious effect, while the men (Ford, Dr. Caius, Falstaff, Bardolph and Pistol) group together and generally make themselves ridiculous. The comedy raced through at furious pace (with the audience frequently laughing out loud), separated by occasional romantic interludes between Nannetta and her beloved Fenton, in which Amanda Forsythe and Joel Prieto made an engaging young couple. While Maestri’s Sir John was clearly the centre of attention, Ama María Martínez sang elegantly as Alice, and Marie-Nicole Lemieux gave a robust performance as Mistress Quickly; the scene in which she tackles Falstaff at the Garter Inn was hilarious.

It’s strange to say it of a Verdi opera, but for me, the music played a rather secondary role. Falstaff was Verdi's last opera, and he has been accused of having capitulated to Wagner (or congratulated for it, depending on your point of view). Personally, I don’t find the music Wagnerian (no leitmotifs, no symphonic progression), but it’s quite different from earlier Verdi in that it is through-composed with short motifs and very little in the way of set pieces. There was plenty to enjoy from the score and Daniele Gatti’s rendering of it - all manner of snatches of melody and subtle touches of orchestration - but overall, I was focused on the comedy and the stagecraft and Boito’s marvellous libretto rather than on the singing. Rather in the way one watches a movie with a great score, the music may be the key in providing the atmosphere and the emotional effect, but you’re watching the movie, not the music. There are some exceptions, such as Falstaff’s lament at the beginning of Act III about the cruelty of the world and the misery of old age, delivered by Maestri with gravity and emotion: I felt every one of Verdi’s eighty years.

Even in this profound moment, though, the staging stole the show as Maestri sings it collapsed on a pile of straw in the stables, with the company of only a horse who is munching quietly. It’s a gimmick, I grant, but an effective one, and after the show, I was amused to see a crowd gathering outside one of Royal Opera House side doors for Rupert the Horse to take his bow.

This production will be marking the start of La Scala’s centenary Verdi season next year, so I guess that makes this Covent Garden run a kind of dry run for that prestigious event. On the evidence of last night, it’s a highly successful dry run.